Oh, Nnedi Okorafor. You make the unknown familiar and the familiar delectably strange. You make magic more than just mathematical formulae, and you make math into magic. You turn earth into history, history in to myth, and myth back into reality. And you have really awesome hair. What can you not do?
If there is something you’re bad at, we haven’t found it yet. It’s certainly nowhere in evidence in Binti, a novella about the eponymous young woman who is a math prodigy among a family of prodigies, surpassing even her father’s remarkable talent. She is also Himba, a people who do not leave their ancestral lands under any circumstances. Binti defies her family to take a place at the galaxy’s foremost university, and struggles to find a way to fit her defiance into her traditions, which she both wishes to keep and knows must change. But what starts as a journey of personal discovery and risk becomes entwined, as all individual’s stories eventually do, with the cultures in which they participate. Binti is swept up in a deadly clash, and must bring together all parts of her self in order to find a solution.
This is not your average “parents bad/teen good” or “tradition bad/accepting the mainstream march of progress good.” There’s a whole lot of nuance in these 52 pages: short but subtle meditations on authenticity, on appropriation, and on communication. But it is Binti’s relationship to herself that is ultimately paramount to her survival, and it raises excellent questions about how our own histories and traditions can break us or save us.
By far the most tense moment for me was a scene in which professors debated whether to return an item of cultural value that had been inappropriately taken from another culture. I want to believe in the nobility and sensitivity of the academy. I want to believe that education enhances compassion, especially in this future that still seems so heartbreakingly intolerant. But I also know that academics are–well in this case mortal, if not human–and that Okorafor, herself a professor, may have had some ugly truths to reveal. The resolution is ultimately satisfying, but contains a few unexpected elements, as any good story should.
Still, there are some stories that are meant to be novellas. Binti works well as one, but we are left with several unanswered questions that seem to call for either a few more pages or transformation into a full-length novel. There is a rather large body count to contend with, and a bit more to be said about forgiveness and anger than Okorafor got into. I would happily read several hundred more pages set in this universe, so this is less a criticism and more an invitation: Ms. Okorafor, won’t you give us more?
In the past it’s been difficult for me to recommend a novella – usually they’re from smaller presses, or they cost as much as a regular book even with far fewer pages. Fortunately, I am now a convert to ebooks* and can say that this is well worth the price – it’s three bucks, about the same as a latte and much better at keeping you awake. Available Sept. 22.
*And by convert I mean that the cats wake me up in the morning by knocking over the piles of books on our floor, since we ran out of shelf space long ago. I have to buy ebooks. I don’t think it’s physically possible to get more books in my room. Guys, I might have a problem.